What you need to know about drinking alcohol in the “gray zone”

Throughout COVID-19, many Americans have turned to alcohol as a way to cope. Surveys suggest that 60% of people drink more than before the pandemic. Those who say they feel stressed about COVID are particularly likely to say they drink more – and more often – than before.

This, in turn, suggests that the number of “gray zone” drinkers may be on the rise. It is a non-clinical and somewhat vague term, although it has gained ground in recent years. It generally describes people who drink regularly but do not meet the clinical criteria for alcohol dependence.

Curious about drinking in gray areas? Here are some basics you should know.

What is the gray area of ​​drinking – and is not

Again, “drinking in the gray area” is not a formal term that doctors or many addiction specialists will use. Yet it is a concept that has recently captured the public imagination, as it describes a category of people who have long been excluded from conversations about drug addiction: those who are not necessarily living with an addiction, but who have concerns. questions about their relationship with alcohol.

And that’s, potentially, a pretty large group.

The According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that 90% of people who drink “excessively” (that is, drink excessively, are “heavy drinkers”, drink while pregnant, or drink even if they are pregnant). are under 21) do not actually meet the clinical criteria for alcohol use disorder. At the same time, however, the official bar for binge drinking is lower than many Americans realize. Health officials consider it be above eight drinks a week for women and 15 drinks per week for men.

But even with cutoffs and definitions in place, it’s not always clear when a person’s drinking has become problematic which is why groups like the CDC don’t say that drinking alcohol is a problem. A person is a problem if they have, say, three drinks a night, three evenings a week. Instead, they say drink is a problem for a person if it causes problems in their relationships, at school, in their social activities or in their thoughts and feelings.

This is where the concept of a drinking gray area can come in handy. Many people turn to specific tags to help them determine if they have a health problem. And “alcohol use in the gray area” is a term that can help some people define their own relationship to alcohol in ways that they might not have been able to do before.

“My clients tell me all the time that they are doing great. Often they don’t have consequences or external stories, but they do have internal questioning. It’s right there where there’s that inner knowing, it’s the first thing to pay attention to.

– Jolene Park, health coach

“I define the gray area for drinking as the space between two extremes,” said Jolene Park, a Denver-based health coach whose practice focuses on drinking alcohol in gray areas. She described the two polar extremes of alcohol use as one person severely addicted to someone who never drinks or drinks only a few times a year.

“The reality is that most people don’t drink in any of these extreme categories,” Park said. “They drink in between that, which is the gray area.”

“My clients will tell me all the time that they are performing great,” she added. “Often they don’t have consequences or external stories, but they do have internal questioning. It’s right there where there’s that inner knowing, it’s the first thing to pay attention to.

Drinking alcohol in the gray area can be very different for different people. Some people may rarely drink at home, but go out and drink excessively in society, which results in “Hangxiety”. Others might find that they don’t necessarily drink as much as it bothers them on a daily basis, but they drink in a different way than they once did, perhaps as a relatively new stress coping mechanism. . Or maybe they just think about alcohol more than they would like. It’s not just the “when” and “how much” that matters; the “how” and the “why” are also important.

What to do if you are concerned about drinking alcohol in gray areas

These examples only scratch the surface of what can be considered a gray area of ​​alcohol consumption. If you’re questioning your relationship with alcohol, as Park said, it’s probably a sign worth exploring.

And because alcohol consumption in gray areas is so vast and subjective, there is no one-size-fits-all solution to dealing with it. Some people will benefit from the types of evidence-based treatments used for alcohol use disorders, including therapy, inpatient treatment programs, and peer support groups. Prescription drugs can also help.

Often the answer is abstinence, and many trainers, like Park, focus on an abstinence model. But not always.

“For a while we have all been stuck with this traditional form of addiction and the way you get help,” said Khadi Oluwatoyin, founder of the Sober Black Girls Club, a nonprofit organization for black women who range from “sober curious” to those living with addiction. “For me, I think everyone should be able to explore their relationship with substances. They shouldn’t have to wait for it to become problematic, especially with a mind-altering substance.

“At our meetings, we open them up to people who practice harm reduction. We are opening them up to people who are wondering if they have a problem but are not ready to take the plunge, ”she said. With a harm reduction model, a person can focus on decreasing the number of days per week they drink or set clear start and end times.

Ultimately, the growing variety of forms of support and treatment – as well as new types of terminology that might allow people generally excluded from the conversation to participate – hopefully means that more people will receive support. aid than before, said Oluwatoyin.

“A person does not even have to identify himself as a gray zone drinker, he does not have [to] identify as a problem drinker, they don’t need to identify as a drug addict or alcoholic to really question or understand their relationship with alcohol, ”she said.

Joshua B. Speller